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Why Do My Feet Go Numb and Hurt When I Paddle Board?

This has to be one of the most oft-asked questions on the stand up paddleboarding social media pages, and it always results in a flurry of vague answers about shoe types, bending your knees and a bunch of other random suggestions for both causes and cures. However, it’s actually far more straightforward in terms of both what causes it, and how to deal with it. As writer Bill Dawes explains, it all comes down to basic physiology and physics.

Why your feet hurt

As Isaac Newton deduced many centuries ago, the force of gravity is doing its best to pull everything on (or near) the planet towards the centre of the earth. And this applies to what’s inside your body as well as outside. Whenever you are standing up, gravity is dragging the blood downhill in your body – so your body has had to evolve a mechanism for dealing with this. Every time you take a step, or even just raise your heels, your calf muscles contract and squeeze the veins in your leg, creating a pumping motion which literally pumps the blood back uphill from your feet. So when you’re moving around, the downhill flow from gravity is neatly compensated for by your calf pumps, and everything works very nicely.

If you’ve ever had to stand still for a long time, maybe on a parade or a service, or as a spectator at an event, you’ll have experienced this already. You instinctively shuffle your feet a bit, move around on the spot. The brain is just reminding your calf muscles to do a bit of pumping. If you can’t move your feet (because you’re standing at attention during a long rambling speech at a remembrance parade or something), then it can really get uncomfortable. And that’s exactly what’s going on when we paddleboard, except even more so, because we’re also working aerobically.

When you start working the body more vigorously, the blood pumps faster around the body to bring fuel and energy to all the parts that need it. Again, this all functions very nicely because standing physical activity almost invariably involves more vigorous action in the calf muscles. Think walking, running, cycling, swimming; those calves are hard at work doing their job pumping the blood back uphill, and nobody’s getting sore feet.

And then along came stand up paddleboarding: Possibly the only physical exertion you can do while standing absolutely still, not lifting your heels at all! So you’re out there and your blood is being dragged down into your feet by Newton’s discovery. They are literally swelling up. If you’re relatively new to paddleboarding then your feet are probably quite tense too, because you’re instinctively gripping with them. So the foot muscles are working, producing lactates, which is then sticking around because your calf muscles aren’t able to pump the old blood away like normal. Your feet are swollen and awash with lactates – is it any wonder that they’re going to hurt?!

How to stop it

Fortunately, the solution is super simple – just get those calf pumps going! A few gentle heel raises will usually clear the problem straight away. However, it’s important also to check that your shoes aren’t too tight, because that’s really not going to help with the foot-swelling thing. Work it in with your paddling; as you bring the paddle down into the water you can lift that inside heel, in time with your stroke. And then just get in the habit of doing this now and then to pre-empt any further discomfort.

The good news is that as you get more experienced at paddling it becomes less of an issue anyway, because you’re more relaxed on the board and you tend to become a whole lot more mobile. When you’re starting out you move your feet very little, as it’s scary and unbalancing to even think about repositioning them! But as you get more experienced you’ll naturally move around more. As your stroke develops and you start to hinge more at the waist this also brings in just enough ankle flex to generate some calf pump action, which is why racers can go hard for long periods of time without experiencing any foot issues.

So in summary – the problem is essentially because paddleboarding is a (perhaps the only!) standing-up physical activity that doesn’t utilise the calf muscles, which play a vital role in counteracting the natural tendency of gravity to pull all your blood down into your feet when you’re standing up. It’s an absolutely genuine phenomenon, it’s not psychological or due to fatigue or fear or anything like that. It’s real!

But the good news is that it’s very easy to make it go away.

  • 1) Check your shoes aren’t too tight
  • 2) Do a few heel raises, to get the blood moving again.

There you go! If only every problem was that simple to resolve.

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